Know your Wirth

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Bernie Schultz

Elite pro Bernie Schultz poses with Don Wirth (right) during a recent Day on the Lake fishing excursion.

I was born in 1971. Math is not my strong suit, but even I know that will make me 50 years old when my birthday rolls around in September. It wasn’t so long ago when I’d meet 50-year-old people and consider them elderly. For the record, my opinions of the elderly have changed. So, it’s amazing to think that before I took my first breath on this earth, Don Wirth had work published in this magazine. Yes, this month marks the 50th anniversary of Wirth’s contributions to Bassmaster, an extremely rare feat for any journalist writing for any magazine, and a record not likely to ever be broken in this one.

Bob Cobb, the first editor of Bassmaster, bought Wirth’s first submission in 1971. The piece was a humorous yarn titled “Harry ‘n’ Charlie Go Nite-Fishin’.” The stars of this misadventure were based on Wirth and Cliff Shelby, the cartoonist who illustrated the feature. Wirth and Shelby worked together at an advertising agency in Arkansas, became fast friends and fishing buddies, and eventually cohorts on one of the longest running features in the history of Bassmaster.

“When I read Wirth’s first manuscript, I just fell in love with the characters,” said Cobb. “Readers seemed to enjoy his first yarn, so we published another one. And then another one. Eventually, Harry ‘n’ Charlie became a staple in Bassmaster. We made shirts, hats and even a hardbound collection of the stories,” Cobb remembers. It seemed Wirth had perfectly encompassed the experience fishermen had at the bass club level, when bass clubs were still in their infancy. “I’m telling you, Harry ‘n’ Charlie became a part of the culture of bass fishing in the early days. I met people that thought Swamp Gas Corners was a real place. The talent required to pull off a humorous piece is understated. It’s tough. And Wirth can do it better than anyone,” Cobb said.

Of course, Wirth wrote tons of informative, how-to pieces over the decades, as well. None have been more popular than the concept he pitched Dave Precht, the second editor of Bassmaster, in 1997. “Wirth called me with the idea to get on the boat with a pro, fish a lake he had never seen before and write a diary of how he put together the puzzle of finding and catching bass. After all, that’s about all the time average fishermen have to catch fish,” said Precht. “I thought it sounded fantastic. His guinea pig was Jay Yelas, who ended up catching almost 25 pounds, I think. It was a smash hit and Bassmaster has been running the feature ever since.”

I’ve had the privilege of working with Wirth since 2003, when I took the reins of Bassmaster. I was shocked to learn that he was in a band. “I didn’t know people as old as you did that,” I remember chiding. He didn’t laugh, but did invite me to be the subject of his “Day On The Lake” feature. The first fish I caught was about 4 inches long.

“That looks like a bass, but smaller,” he said.

Touché.

While talking to Cobb and Precht about Wirth, we came to the same conclusion. He has been an indelible fixture in this publication and a major reason for its success over the past 50 years. Precht likely put it best: “Don is so talented, he could have written for any magazine in any genre. We are blessed that he chose Bassmaster.”